(The Sage) knows he makes no fine display,
and wears rough clothes, not finery.
It is not in his expectancy of men
that they should understand his ways,
for he carries his jade within his heart.
– Tao Te Ching 70 (Rosenthal)
The short, hunched figure appeared in front of me loaded with purpose. The weather bent us both down, compelled our gaze towards cautious feet and the treacherous lack of grip underneath them. It was only a casual glance that saw the short red coat and hood approaching as I wondered who else might be out making their own time down the sidewalk. A child? A friend? Anyone I knew?
When we approached a few plodding paces apart a quick glance up saw her as an old woman. I could not make out many details about her presence rendered trivial as we both concentrated on our chilling task, the path from here to there. I smiled a quick “Hello!” and she said as much back as we passed, still a stranger though also a comrade in purpose. We were both anonymous in our shields against the cold that might catch up if we had stopped for any more than a word. The weather itself had rendered us equal, distant, and humble.
The gnawing cold of Winter strikes every year in the middle of a great continent, hardly a surprise. But the depth of it is still shocking as weeks pass by without crossing freezing. We are all bent low by the experience even as we reasonably expect it. The simple act of making our way takes on an air of heroism, a struggle that defines us huddled in our own cocoons to keep warm.
The woman that morning on West Seventh Street was utterly anonymous at a distance, the same as anyone else. I could not tell if she was black or white, old or young, a friend or a stranger. Even close up there was little of her story I could make out other than her moment was about the same as mine. There wasn’t any time to exchange details, either. A quick acknowledgement that we were in this together was about all either of us were capable of managing.
That reaction to the weather had to be as expected as the reality of February itself. There isn’t much else any of us can do, other than buttoning up in a car for those with the scratch to afford it. Once we’re on the sidewalk making time we’re all the same, equally anonymous and determined.
The culture of this part of the world often seems strange to those who aren’t used to it. The assumption of equality carries over into the warmer months, the times of the year too easy to define us. People use first names and familiar language carelessly, even when traveling abroad to places both more formal and fluid. Where many places use language to define barriers between people even they stand rather close, the upper Midwest uses language to convey sameness and equality – to the extent we get to use language at all.
Most of the year this attitude rankles me, I have to confess. Having come from a warmer climate with easy life but a tremendous amount of ethnic diversity, I was taught early on the value of respect. People are addressed by “Sir” and “Ma’am” if there is any question, and family names are used until we’re told otherwise. I’ve had to teach my kids what a culture based on respect looks like, how it operates, and how to be a part of it as if it comes from a foreign land. It does, in fact.
That’s not to say that people around here lack respect, but that the first thought anyone has when meeting a stranger must be that they are about the same as they are. We’re all at least equal and have roughly the same hopes and dreams. No matter what the temperature, something about us is walking out the bighting cold along a sidewalk.
I call it my Theory of Climate and Culture, a fancy title that underlies the great humility of an annual assault by nature. “Given time, any people will develop a culture that is defined by their climate more than anything else – no matter how sophisticated and intelligent they think they are.”
One a day well below freezing the simple act of getting somewhere shows where this culture comes from. It’s a deep sense of humility forced on all of us by events. We define ourselves by the thick shields wrapped tight against the cold and our the rhythm of our own feet. We’re all the same out in this, equal in the struggle and the low moment of our day. It takes that kind of humility to understand where it comes from.